Saturday, February 26, 2011

Broccoli, Schmoccoli: A Mandate for Education

As an argument against the individual mandate to buy health insurance, one often hears something like this: "If the government can force us to buy health insurance, they could also force us to buy GM cars or even broccoli!"

Those are rather lame analogies -- unrealistic and not truly parallel to health insurance. While forcing us to buy cars has probably already crossed some civil servant's mind, the auto market just does not have the features of health insurance to make it even a remote candidate for an individual mandate-type rule. And broccoli...come on.

Here is a better one. Let's look forward to the year 2025, and read an editorial in the New York Times supporting the College Responsibility and Accountability Program.

What is more important than education, as a means for upward mobility in society? What better than education to break the generational cycle of ignorance, poverty, and dependence? The statistical evidence confirms that there is no better investment than investment in oneself, through a great post-secondary, college education. Education is truly a "special" economic commodity. It deserves special social and legal consideration.

Yet the United States is failing in providing a reasonably priced college education for all those who could benefit from it. In fact, the United States spends considerably more of its GDP on education, but its citizens consistently perform worse than other countries on any measures of intellectual ability, be it verbal or quantitative. The rate of increase in tuition at American universities exceeds by a large margin the general rate of inflation, and it has done so for decades.

The reasons for this high-cost, low-quality education market are numerous, and the forces of change work at glacial speed in the education industry. We still teach in the same way that Socrates did thousands of years ago. Some professors still use a blackboard! Technology advances abound, yet their rate of adoption is tortoise-like. Variations in costs and outcomes across colleges are huge: the total cost of an MBA at a private university exceeds $140,000, yet the graduates of elite schools can calculate an NPV no better than graduates of state universities with costs significantly less.

High costs force high prices, and many students and their parents are deep in educational loan debt.

And of course, the main problem is that we have a huge uneducated portion of the population -- those who are essentially closed out of the educational market. Without a college education, the chances of these young people making it into the middle class are very low. Their children will be in an even worse situation. While luck sometimes will lift a family out of ignorance and poverty, we cannot rely on hope alone. Something has to be done.

Exacerbating the situation is ruinous, death-spiral inducing competition in the education market. The best private and public colleges, rich with donations from wealthy alumni and blessed with grand reputations and brand names, attract only the very brightest students with the most potential. The less qualified (at least as measured by test scores and high school records) end up at colleges with...less qualified professors, fewer resources, and worse opportunities. The best companies go to the best colleges to recruit those students, leaving graduates of lesser schools in the ranks of the unemployed. As opportunities at lower tier schools deteriorate, prospective students wisely choose to not attend. This is the lemons market of education.

The College Responsibility and Accountability Program promises a remedy. In today's world, we have to recognize that a college education is a right. We must provide all young Americans an excellent college education. To do so, an individual mandate for everyone to purchase a four-year college education is both necessary and proper. Without an individual mandate, too many young people will choose to not attend college, and many universities will be unable to adequately provide the necessary resources for those foresighted students who do attend.

There are those who say that the US Constitution does not give Congress the power to regulate the education market, or to regulate an inaction on the part of its citizens. Yet the education market is clearly an interstate market, with students freely flowing across state lines, making application of the interstate commerce clause a trivial exercise. And as for the argument that Congress lacks the power to regulate an inaction: What more significant action can there be than the failure to attend college? To characterize the decision to not attend college as the lack of a decision or the lack of an action is to fail to see the other side of a coin. Deciding to not attend college is a decision to free ride off the rest of society; it is a decision to save one's own money now with the guarantee that the rest of society will protect one later on. The aggregate effect of a large portion of our young population to not attend college will prevent efficient functioning of an interstate higher education market; the regulation of these decisions is therefore a necessary and proper exercise of Congress' enumerated Constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce.

The College Responsibility and Accountability Program has many other provisions besides the individual mandate. There are provisions for employer-based tuition credits; enhanced subsidies and tax credits for lower income students; and the establishment of pilot programs to bend the value curve in education. There is an innovative new system of state-level educational exchanges to permit students to pick the college education that best fits their needs -- with choices of bronze, silver, gold and platinum packages. Pricing of the options is tightly regulated, with pricing differentials allowed only for the length of the program and the degree offered.

But the individual mandate to buy post-secondary education from a Federally-accredited institution is an absolutely necessary part of the overall package. If the pool of students remains at only 60% of the potential, as it is now, this country will never achieve the high quality educational industry that we need to be competitive. Requiring the purchase of a college education, with generous subsidies for those in need, is not only constitutionally permitted but absolutely necessary.

1 comment:

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